Losing the Waigul Valley

From a vampire-slaying-sword auction to wine tastings with fans, Leslie Esdaile Banks W’80 has used her Wharton training (and an almost supernatural business sense) to promote her bestselling book series. By Susan Frith

 

 

Nov|Dec 08 Contents
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  It was a book signing that threatened to flop. Authors dressed in diamonds and spiked heels were sitting in the middle of a Wal-Mart in central Ohio, waiting for shoppers to visit their tables. But the potential customers had long shopping lists and crying kids in their carts.

“They would see the tables, freeze, and go in the other direction,” recalls Leslie Esdaile Banks W’80, who was poised—minus the glitz—to autograph installments from her bestselling Vampire Huntress Legend series.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to change the way we do things, people,’” says Banks, who writes under several pen names, including L.A. Banks. She began putting flyers on shoppers’ carts. “We’ve got candy!” she told them. “We’re having fun! Come bring your family.” Soon, the other authors got the nerve to emerge from their paperback fortresses and customers flocked to meet them.

“A couple of times people left their cart with their child in it to take off down the aisle and find whomever [they wanted to meet me],” Banks says, laughing. “I was like, ‘You don’t know me from a can of paint!’ Oh my goodness. I’ve got a baby on my hip and I’m signing books. It was wild! I had people say, ‘Wait a minute! My girlfriend reads your books … ’ And they’d hand me their cell phone: ‘Here, tell my girlfriend something!’”

One author’s headache. Banks’ element. “I do enjoy it.”

Before becoming a full-time writer of horror, romance, crime and suspense, and other genres in the trade-paperback realm, Banks cut her fangs on sales for Fortune 100 companies. “We were always taught not to be afraid of rejection and that you had to make it easier for the customer to approach you and to buy something,” she says. Her marketing spunk has helped spur more than 1.2 million in sales for her 12-book vampire series, whose final installment is due out in February. Banks has earned a commendation this year as one of Pennsylvania’s 50 Best Women in Business, the 2008 Storyteller of the Year award from Essence Magazine, and the loyalty of some enthusiastic fans. Two of her books, Minion and The Awakening, have been optioned for film, and the series is coming out in the popular Japanese comic form known as manga. That’s not to mention all the product tie-ins (anyone in need of a one-of-a-kind vampire-slaying Madame Isis hero sword?), promotional events (how about a vampire wine tasting backstage at the Annenberg Center?), and chat-room conversations she’s cultivated to keep the buzz going about her books.

“If you’re not showing sales at the big box chains, they don’t want to hear it,” Banks explains. “The entrepreneurial stuff you do spikes your sales, which guarantees you can write pretty much what you want if you can sell it. So it’s back to the old Wharton model.”

Banks’ series tells the story of Damali Richards, an African-American spoken-word artist who happens to be a Neteru, a vampire slayer born every thousand years and gifted with special powers. She and the other musicians at Warriors of Light Records—who are also her guardians—face off against a cast of dark-realm dwellers, from vampires and were-demons to Lilith of ancient rabbinical legend to drug-dealers and power-hungry politicians. Meanwhile, she and bad-boy-turned-vampire-turned-soul-mate Carlos Rivera try to carve out a relationship, encountering such obstacles as attempts to implant Damali with demon seed. In spite of their dangerous quests—and approaching Armageddon—they manage to have plenty of smoldering sex.

Publishers Weekly called the series “sizzling,” commenting (in a review of Book 8, The Wicked) on Banks’ “inimitable combination of street and baroque language … dramatic sex, action-packed good vs. evil adventure and multicultural mythology.”

“Thrilling and rousing” was how The Romantic Times described Book 10, The Darkness. The works are not everyone’s cup of blood. “Cringeworthy,” pronounced the book-review website Vampire Genre, attacking, in particular, its attempts at “spoken word” dialogue. Altogether, the thrill-to-cringe ratio has been large enough to install Banks on the New York Times and USA Today bestsellers lists.

She lets out one of her trademark hearty laughs. “Who knew the supernatural was going to send my daughter to college?”

Eighteen years ago, Banks was scarcely thinking about the cost of tuition or the cravings of the undead. She got a phone call at work that no parent wants to receive. Her six-month-old baby, Helena, had been badly burned at a company-approved home daycare when she pulled a clothes iron onto herself. “The lady [who ran the daycare] didn’t realize she could crawl. She left the iron up and ran to the bathroom.”

Her daughter lost three fingers and required 17 surgeries. Banks, who had been working for a digital-equipment corporation, was laid off because she was busy caring for her daughter in the hospital. She was also going through a divorce at the time. And there were hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills.

“It was total freefall—like somebody dropped you out of an airplane with no parachute,” Banks recalls. She managed to get some bills reduced and was able to tap into her 401K plan to pay for others. But to avoid bankruptcy, she had to get entrepreneurial.

She became a grant-writer and created a gift-basket business on the side.

To calm herself at night, Banks took to reading romance novels. Her Wharton background had trained her to look at trends and patterns, and as she turned the pages, two thoughts occurred to her: I could write this myself. And what this genre needs are some multicultural characters.

When Banks came across a magazine short-story contest with a $2,500 prize, she took off writing. She never did enter the contest, but her storytelling caught the attention of friends and then, through her own moxie at a romance-writers’ conference, an agent and editor.

“My first book was an African-American female and a Latino male, two markets that were vastly underserved at the time. The editor who actually bought the book (Slow Burn) said, ‘That’s a combination we haven’t seen yet. That combo is hot right now.’”

FEATURE:
Marketing the Macabre By Susan Frith
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette

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  ©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/08